WASHINGTON – When a U.S. jury convicted Michael Dunn of attempted murder, but not actual murder, in the shooting death of a black teenager, the hashtag #dangerousblackkids popped up on Twitter. Users posted photos of black babies and toddlers, making fun of the fear that Dunn testified he felt before opening fire on a car full of teens at a convenience store.
That hashtag was the calling card of “Black Twitter,” a small corner of the social media giant where an unabashedly black spin on life gets served up in 140-character installments.
Black Twitter shares opinions on everything from President Barack Obama to the latest TV reality show. But Black Twitter can also turn activist quickly.
“Black Twitter brings the fullness of black humanity into the social network, and that is why it has become so fascinating,” said Kimberly C. Ellis, who has a doctorate in American and Africana Studies, tweets as @drgoddess and is studying Black Twitter for her upcoming book, “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.”
According to a Pew Research Center report, while similar numbers of blacks and whites use the Internet — 80 percent and 87 percent, respectively — 22 percent of those blacks who were online used Twitter in 2013, compared with 16 percent of online whites.
Meredith Clark, a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is writing her dissertation on Black Twitter, likened it to “Freedom’s Journal,” the first African-American newspaper in the United States. On that publication’s first front page in 1827, it declared: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
“If you are from a particularly marginalized community or one where others have spoken for you, but you have not had the agency to really speak for yourself or make your truth known, then it is absolutely necessary that in any instance you can take on that agency that you do so,” said Clark, who tweets from @meredithclark. “And so that is what you see happening in Black Twitter.”
Mainstream U.S. media first took serious notice of Black Twitter last year, when it abruptly rose up to kill a book deal for a juror in the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of murder in the death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin.
That was the first time that blacks used Twitter “in a very powerful and political way,” said black social media consultant Crystal Washington.
Twitter activism could be the sign of a new civil rights strategy, Ellis said.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People employed the hashtag #TooMuchDoubt for its unsuccessful attempt to halt the execution of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, and the hashtag #OscarGrant on tweets about its activism over the police killing of black teenager Oscar Grant, whose life was later documented in the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
Black Twitter also helped to fuel objections last year over Reebok’s relationship with rapper Rick Ross, whose lyrics were being criticized as pro-rape. Ross had appeared in an ad for the Reebok Classic sneakers. He tweeted an apology before issuing a formal statement again apologizing. Once protesters showed up outside a Reebok store in New York, Reebok dropped the deal.